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12.04.2023Europa League

Our next opponents: Counter-attack kings of the Europa League

Union Saint-Gilloise, a long-established club in Belgium, have written football history for the past three years. USG finished runners-up after being promoted to the top flight in 2021/22. This season, the team currently second in the Jupiler Pro League knocked out Union Berlin in the Europa League Round of 16. Now the club from the Brussels suburbs will be looking to compete with the Werkself at the BayArena on Thursday 13 April (kick-off: 21.00 CEST). The lowdown on our next opponents.
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Position

Following four wins in succession, USG had to settle for one point in the Jupiler Pro League at the weekend. The team under coach Karel Geraerts earned a 1-1 draw in the big match against fourth-placed Gent and remain second behind league leaders Genk. Union Saint-Gilloise made a dream start in Ghent with a goal in the first minute scored by Jean Thierry Lazare Amani after great work by Viktor Boniface. Gent then took control of the match and deservedly levelled from the penalty spot on 80 minutes. Union Saint-Gilloise have already qualified again for the championship play-offs between the top four clubs with 69 points from 32 games. The Yellow and Blues could take top spot in the remaining two league fixtures as they are only two points adrift from Genk. USG had a sensational season as a newly promoted club last term and they only lost to Club Brugge in the play-offs.

Since the British businessman Tony Bloom took over the majority holding from the German entrepreneur Jürgen Baatzsch in 2018, the big Belgian club and eleven-time champions Union Saint-Gilloise have experienced a meteoric rise after decades in the second and third tiers. USG were promoted to the top-flight two years ago and are now playing their first season in Europe. The Belgian runners-up finished top in their group in the Europa League ahead of Union Berlin, Sporting Braga and Malmö. They then played the Irons from Berlin in the Round of 16 drawing 3-3 in the German capital before securing a 3-0 victory in the second leg. Coach Karel Geraerts, who was recently voted coach of the season in Belgian, is still amazed: "Two years ago we were still a second division Belgian team and now we are in the last eight of the Europa League. It's incredible."

In the domestic cup competition, USG were knocked out on penalties in the semi-final against Royal Antwerp at the beginning of March.

PersonNEl

Many pundits predicted a difficult second season for Union Saint-Gilloise in the top-flight. Particularly as the top goalscorer, the former Meppen player Deniz Undav, left the Brussels club last summer to join Brighton and Hove Albion in the Premier League. USG lost a second top striker in Dante Vanzeir at the start of this year. The 24-year-old, who was the top scorer for the Yellow and Blues in the first half of the season with ten goals, is now playing for New York Red Bulls. However, Union are having another sensational season. That is also down to coach Carol Gera's. The 41-year-old manager followed on from the successful coach Felipe Mazzu in the summer of 2022 and he has built a tight-knit group of players.

In front of goalkeeper Anthony Moris, Union usually play a back three with the Swiss Christian Burgess playing in the centre of the defence. The first choices alongside him are the Moroccan Ismael Kandouss and the Belgian Siebe van der Heyden. On the flanks in a five-man midfield are Loic Lapoussin on the left and Bart Nieuwkoop on the right. The key player in central midfield is the captain Teddy Tenma. The 29-year-old Maltese is extremely prolific and has scored nine goals in the Jupiter Pro League and has three goals and three assists in the Europa League. The more defensive work in midfield is looked after by Senne Lynen and the Ivorian Jean Thierry Lazare Amani, a fellow countryman and teammate of Bayer 04 defender Odilon Kossounou for the Ivory Coast.

In August of last year, USG signed the Nigerian Viktor Boniface from the Norwegian club Bodö/Glimt as a replacement for Denis Undav and they hit the bull’s eye with that signing. The 22-year-old Boniface has primarily stood out on the European stage and is currently the top scorer and provider in the current Europa League campaign alongside Marcus Rashford of Manchester United and Anastasios Bakasetas (Trabzonspor). Boniface has scored five goals in eight games (plus two assists) including a brace in the 3-3 draw at Union Berlin. If you take into account the first two rounds of the Champions League qualifiers, where he still played for Norwegian club, Boniface has scored ten goals in twelve games. Dante Vanzeir, now playing in the USA, has been replaced by the young Ivorian Simon Adingra (21) who is up front alongside Boniface. The only German in the squad, centre forward Dennis Eckert Ayensa, has only played 14 games to date due to injury.

Performers

Fast transition after winning possession: That is the great strength of the Belgians and not only in the domestic league but also on the European stage. In the current Europa League competition, no other team has scored more goals from counter-attacks (three) than Saint-Gilloise. The Yellow and Blues have had the most shots on the break (nine) and they have made the most fast counter-attacks (12). In addition, the Belgians are incredibly clinical: Union have the best conversion rate of all Europa League participants at 25%. The team led by coach Geraerts are unbeaten away in this competition so far (three wins, one draw). Union have the second best attack in the Jupiter Pro League. And scoring goals falls on many shoulders. Including Dante Vanzeir, who left the club in the winter, five players have netted double figures this season including the Swede Gustaf Nilsson who has mostly come on as a substitute in recent games. Determination and passion are the two main characteristics of the team.

Problems

The Belgian club has not always been solid in defence. They only have the sixth best record in the league with 38 goals conceded. In February and March 2023 they let in 14 goals in six games across competitions.

Prediction

Even though USG CEO Philippe Bormans again and again insists they are not a top club, Saint-Gilloise are on track to be one. The Yellow and Blues are having a repeat of their sensational first season in Belgium's top-flight in 2021/22 this term. It would be no surprise if Union Saint-Gilloise win the Belgian league title in 2023 for the first time since 1935. Progress to the quarter-finals of the Europa League has seen the club achieve much more than they dreamed of in their first season on the European stage. And the team led by captain Teddy Teuma could prove to be a very tricky opponent for the Werkself.

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